Valencia is a great circuit….but only on paper. The track looks great, it has the hangbridge, the paddock in an old fisherman’s wharf, the hustle, bustle and glamour of Monaco (allbeit a tad toned down). Sadly since F1 first got there in 2008, the amount of competitive overtakes seen on the track can be counted on one hand. Last year’s race was pretty much one long, boring procession only -briefly- spiced up and shaped by Mark Webber spectacular ‘Red Bull gives you wings’ crash with Heikki Kovalainen and Kobayashi’s final lap madness.
Red Bull once again locked out the front row with Vettel on pole after Mclaren had finally broken Red Bulls qualifying dominance in Canada, making it 8 out of 9 pole positions for RBR. However unlike this season, early 2010 Red Bull was still struggling with reliability so they did not fully exploit their car’s superior pace in terms of points, and the Mclarens were leading the way in the WDC and WCC with Lewis and Jenson 1 and 2 in the standings after their Canada triumph. At this point in the season, Mclaren and Lewis Hamilton definately had the best cards to snatch the title. Compared to this year with Vettel so dominant, one could argue it does not bode well for the competition in 2011. Hamilton and Alonso were on row two, Massa and Kubica made up row three, and Button saw himself only on row 4 flanked by rookie Hulkenberg, only one of the first times the Hulk managed to beat Barichello in qualifying.
The start was quite exciting, Hamilton got a great launch and went flying past Webber who sort of botched it. Alonso subsequently also mugged Webber into T1. Hamilton had a go at Vettel into turn one but another of his Vettel’s now characteristic ‘Schumi’ chops kept Hamilton behind him, with both cars making contact as Vettel squeezed Hamilton into the apex (thought they weren’t allowed to change lines under braking? – ah yes, on lap one everything is permitted lol). Hamilton sounds a bit panicky on the radio complaining of vibrations but his pace does not seem too badly affected by some front wing damage he incurred on the contact. Meanwhile Webber is going backwards all the time, getting passed by Massa into T2 as well and ending a dreadful first lap going from p2 to p9!
As everyone settles in for the procession, Webber serves up a spectacular crash as he’s just a tad too optimistic trying to slipstream the much slower Lotus of Kovalainen on lap 9. This was a battle for position because Webber pitted early on lap 8 trying to get out of traffic as he was stuck down in p9 behind Hulkenberg anyway (damn you durable Bridgestones – the hards he put on would have easily allowed him to finish the race without stopping again). Kovalainen decides to defend the position, a bit futile of course, and Webber got caught out by the huge closing speed and how much earlier the Lotus had to brake compared to the Red Bull. This delivered the most spectacular crash of the season with Webber flipping up into the air, landing upside down and slamming hard into the barrier. Luckily, neither driver got injured but both were obviously out of the race.
This crash triggered a safety car period which basically determined finishing position. The inlaps for those that had not yet been caught by the safety cars also proved to be highly controversial, and saw a new piece of classic Ferrari whinging to the FIA. The most controversial moment was when Hamilton passed the safety car as it was exiting the pitlane, with Alonso getting stuck behind. This payed great dividends to Hamilton, who retained p2 after his stop, but the Ferraris suffered badly with them ending up p 8 and p15. While Hamilton clearly violated the rules with this overtake, it was just a matter of a few metres. Had he not held back that much, he’d have passed the safety car before the safety car line on track and his move would have been perfectly legal. As it was, he passed it just behind that lines, and was up for a penalty. Showing the bad blood of 2007 still runs within Alonso, he immediately started whining on the team radio for the stewards to have a look into Hamilton’s move. I understand he’d want that checked out, but it all sounded a bit desperate and petty on the Ferrari team radio. Alonso’s saying all the team should do for the rest of the race is be on the radio to Charlie Whiting about Hamilton, his race engineer Stella complaining how unfair it was but had to get Alonso back in line for him to focus on his own race. Kobayashi was one of the few people not to stop during the SC period, and this put him in a spectacular p3 ahead of Jenson Button who also profited massively from the SC madness. With Sauber having a dismal season up to that point, this was the first indication of Sauber’s improved form in the latter half of the season once James Key had joined them.
While the Ferraris suffered badly from the safety car, Michael Schumacher was in even worse shape. As he wanted to exit the pits, the red lights came on at the end of the pitlane and Schumi was left waiting there for the entire field to come through putting him all the way at the back of the field with the exception of Trulli who was already two laps down following a long time in the pits with technical problems. All throughout the race the Mercs were struggling with brake temperature as well, something to keep in mind for this year’s race as brakes could play an important part on this tricky track with many heavy braking zones.
We’ll revisit the stewards’ decision later but first there was of course the restart. Vettel took them along very slowly and caught himself out by low brake and tire temp when he launched into the final corner and locked up, going slightly wide but Lewis Hamilton could not profit from this mistake. From then on things settled back down very quickly and the procession was underway again. Ferrari’s constant whinging to Charlie finally did come to fruition and Hamilton was issued a drive through penalty. Crucially though, it took the stewards a very long time to issue this penalty -Ferrari did have a legitimate gripe over this- and Hamilton managed to eke out a big enough gap to a stunning Kobayashi who fairly easily retained p3 ahead of Button, and emerged from the pitlane ahead of the battling duo. While the penalty was indeed deserved – rules are rules, but Ferraris’ whining was very petty indeed. Hamilton’s transgression was a matter of just a few meters and I very much doubt it was intentional, he just hesitated for a split second and Alonso would have probably been stuck behind the SC regardless of Hamilton’s move. To say Hamilton ruined their race is therefore quite unfair, their race would have been ruined regardless, the only thing different is that Hamilton would have been in p7 rather than p2, but it wouldn’t have changed the Ferrari’s position at all. In addition, stewards were investigating about 10 cars for not respecting the safety car lap delta, but were only issued a 5 seconds time penalty after the race, which did not change much: Buemi lost a spot to Alonso and De La Rosa dropped out of the points for Rosberg to take p10.
While Hamilton did not lose track position from the penalty, it did rob us viewers of what could have been a good battle with Vettel. From 2 seconds behind Hamilton dropped to 15 seconds behind, allowing Vettel to basically cruise home to victory. Meanwhile Button could not find a way past Kobayashi and was not even really trying, knowing Kamui would have to do his mandatory pitstop to fit the softs before the end of the race. Astonishingly, Sauber left it to lap 52 of 57 (every time I watch a 2010 race I fall even more in love with Pirelli) and Kobayashi rejoined just behind Alonso in p9, ahead of his Sauber teammate De La Rosa. Luckily we have Kamui to save the race and deliver some spectacle, as he was absolutely flying on his fresh options on low fuel. His final two laps were quite stunning: First passing Alonso on the penultimate lap with a daring outbraking move (read back to my blog post on overtaking and think that if Alonso had turned in aggressively instead of very fairly giving room we’d have called for a penalty on Kamui which would have probably happened with the 2011 stewarding). Then on the final corner of the final lap he pulls another superb move on Buemi to snatch P7.
Thinking of how Kobayashi managed to pull of these moves with great driving but crucially on fresher Bridgestones than his competition, this does make me optimistic that we could have plenty competitive overtakes in 2011 with the Pirellis. In addition, Valencia will see another double DRS zone like in Canada. While I found it severe overkill on Canada, a track where we’ve seen plenty of passing throughout the years, I believe it will be a good thing for Valencia. The activation zone is shorter than Canada, and there’s a good chance for DRS to work as intended to get cars alongside in the braking zone for a good fight (ie not as in Canada and Turkey where cars came sailing by on the straight). The DRS zones will be separated by three corners, unlike in Canada where it was just the wall of champions chicane. I believe we’ll see DRS deliver spectacle without the sour taste we got in the above mentioned GPs this year.
So now it is time for my predictions. I’m still on a high for prediciting the Button win in Canada so let’s see if I can get it right again (nevermind I also had pole for Button and stuffed up p2 and 3 – the win is all that really counts lol).
I believe Mclaren will come out swinging and continue their drive putting Red Bulls’ dominance to an end. In reality, Mclaren have probably had the fastest car in race pace since Spain, and I truly believe Red Bull’s dominance is nearing its expiration date. That said, Hamilton will snatch pole in a very close fight with Vettel. Valencia will be the hot blown diffuser’s final hurrah, with the ban coming into effect for the next GP at Silverstone and I do believe Red Bull will be among the hardest hit (Renault will suffer most in my opinion). But Valencia is a track that also nullifies another of Red Bull’s major quali advantage: unrestricted DRS use . A large part of the quali gap Red Bull have is that they have so much downforce so that they are able to use DRS earlier than all others even before they have properly exited the corner (Vettel in Turkey’s Turn 8 a classic example) , but Valencia does not really have the medium speed corners where this comes into play. Hamilton will be on a charge after his dismal weekends in Monaco and Canada, and there’s no doubt this rot he’s in will end at some point. Webber will pip Alonso for p3 in quali. Crucially, I have just read this breaking news story, that already in Valencia the FIA will force teams to use the same engine map in quali during their first stint in the race, which would make it impractical for Red Bull to use their extreme mapping for quali. That said, the Red Bull remains a stunning car so they will still quali well, but it will allow Hamilton to pip Vettel. I’m surely looking forward to quali!
On to the race, I’m going out on a limb and predict another Button victory through clever strategy and precision overtaking. Perhaps even more controversially, I’m going to put Hamilton p2 for a Mclaren 1-2 after a botched pitstop lets Button through. Vettel will lose out to Webber for P3. I don’t see the Ferraris performing particularly well on race pace but Alonso will pick up some solid points, and I see Massa struggling again, as the medium tire will probably not suit them too well and we will not see the supersofts (Pirelli are bringing the soft and medium tires, and the harder the tires the bigger the struggle for Ferrari it seems). Merc will struggle because of their continuing trouble with rear tire wear, which is going to be very high anyway on this track. There you have it, my review and predictions. Please do give your views and predictions in the comments so we can determine bragging rights next week 😉